Upstream Color ReviewJune 15, 2013
While puzzling and hard to summarize, Upstream Color is a provocative and impressionistic work of art.
When most people think of independent cinema, generally thoughts of dramas and quirky comedies come to mind. However, science fiction films are normally not the sort of project that can be tackled with a tiny budget. Even so, software developer-turned-filmmaker Shane Carruth proved that notion wrong with Upstream Color, an ambitious sci-fi drama. Does this independent film ultimately prove to be something more than a gorgeous-looking puzzler?
As idiotic as this is going to sound, I am not going to attempt to summarize the plot of Upstream Color. This is one of the more puzzling films I have seen in a long time. That’s not to say that Upstream Color is completely incomprehensible, for I could actually understand what was going on, there are just too many ideas floating around the story that are open to interpretation that it is difficult to summarize. Even so, it is clear enough to say that Upstream Color is a story that involves a mysterious biological connection that exists between a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) and a man named Jeff (Shane Carruth). These two wrecked souls are then brought together by this connection and attempt to help each other rebuild their lives.
As I said, Upstream Color is a film that requires genuine patience and attention, so it is not the most approachable cinematic experience. Even if you watch this film with the most tempered and open-minded perspective, this is still a very tough film to mentally conquer – I am not even sure I could fully comprehend it upon multiple viewings. That being said, Upstream Color is unique, rich with ideas, and a film that has the proper emotion and power to shape the way someone thinks. I am not exactly sure what Shane Carruth was aiming at, but from this experience I definitely felt a deeper appreciation for human connections, nature and the sanctity of life, so I could only assume that those were motifs that he wanted to explore. They are certainly laced across this story, and I felt that they worked well to infuse some thematic resonance with this picturesque drama. I also found it interesting that Shane Carruth chose to tell most of this story through the visuals and sound, reminiscent of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In that sense, the script is also full of hushed conversations and minimal dialogue; this stylistic choice might turn off some viewers, but it worked for me since it lent a certain cinematic voice to Upstream Color. All in all, the story here requires a certain amount of patience and open-mindedness, but if you sit through the film, you will be introduced to quite a unique, thoughtful science fiction tale.
A reason why Upstream Color is ultimately a success is because of the two lead actors in the relatively small cast. Despite the fact that director Shane Carruth is technically the top-billed actor in the cast, the real star is Amy Seimetz. After all, her character is the focus of the story for the first act of Upstream Color, and the raw emotion she evokes in those first 30 minutes are genuine and enough to cut one’s heart out. Essentially, what we get through her performance is that we feel every emotion she feels – pain, anguish, confusion, etc. In other words, Seimetz does enough to make her character a human being beyond her development in the script. Shane Carruth does similar work as Jeff, and he also has great chemistry with his female counterpart. He has the same amount of nuance and hushed emotion that Seimetz has, which makes his performance as memorable her. In short, Upstream Color is all the more successful because of these leads.
For a film that tells much of its story through the senses, Shane Carruth did an excellent job at making this a feast for the eyes and the ears. That’s not to say that Upstream Color is a special effects extravaganza, though, it is just a well-photographed, uniquely edited cinematic experience. Another very impressive aspect of the technical side of Upstream Color is that it is essentially a “do-it-yourself” film. In other words, Shane Carruth is not only the writer, director and star of this film, he is also the editor, composer and cinematographer. I can only imagine how much stress Shane Carruth was under in that case, but thankfully his work paid off because Upstream Color is a wondrous sensory experience. The imagery is simply pristine, and the visual effects are also very impressive considering the microscopic budget. This film also features many edits that could turn off most viewers, but for me, they enhanced the unique style found here. As for Carruth’s musical score, it is absolutely excellent. That isn’t to say that the music is grand in scale, because the piano and synthetic melodies are rather subtle. However, it does a good enough job underscoring the themes of Upstream Color, and the music also infuses much emotion into this picture.
I can’t say that Upstream Color is the kind of film that I would want to revisit multiple times. After all, it’s not necessarily entertaining, and it is undeniably puzzling as well. Even so, I am glad that I chose to watch Upstream Color. This is a very beautiful film in terms of its visuals and sound, and the story is also something that can affect the way one thinks. Indeed, Upstream Color is one of the films in which everyone will have a different experience, whether it be thematically or emotionally. However, I think that Upstream Color is all the better for that fact.
NOTE: This film likely is no longer in theaters, but it can be rented/purchases on iTunes.